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Inspiring spaces are learning places

Volume 10 Number 8 August 11 - September 7 2014


Laura Soderlind looks at the way the spaces in which we learn can affect learning outcomes, and how inspiring environments can lead to inspired thinking.

“We shape our buildings; therefore they shape us,” observed Winston Churchill, referring to the House of Commons. This observation resounds alike through buildings circa 1800 and those with a contemporary timestamp.

Broken down to bricks and mortar, the University of Melbourne is a collection of buildings that house teaching, learning, research and the pursuit of intellectual advances. Inevitably, the buildings have shaped and directed the activity that takes place within.

Over the course of the University’s 160 years the multiple campuses have witnessed new buildings that mushroom up next to the spires and arches of 19th century designs. 

The campuses are themselves historical artefacts, evidence of prior educational attitudes as well as being manifestoes to current learning styles.

The University recently unveiled its new kid on the block. A building devoted to buildings.

This latest addition, to house the Melbourne School of Design, is built with the purpose of educating and inspiring the next generation of architects and designers. It must practise what the University teaches. 

And it does so by looking forward and backward in the same glance. The building incorporates the façade of the 1856 Bank of New South Wales which was relocated to the University in the 1930s. 

Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, Professor Tom Kvan considers the campus’ newest structure one in which the whole community can share.

“There are many ways in which the building enhances learning and the campus experience, not only for students within the Melbourne School of Design. This building is a remarkable place that inspires learning and encourages enquiry,” Professor Kvan says.

“There is a remarkable ‘outdoor room’ in the centre of the building, an enclosed atrium that encourages conversation and discovery.”

The building houses three lecture theatres, two galleries, many studios and seminar rooms, spaces for students to work alone or in groups, academic offices and workplaces for teams, a magnificent library and a large workshop.

Curiosity and innovation underscore the design of the building in such a way that these qualities are projected onto the generations of students who will study within its library and collaborate in the workshop. 

“The guiding strategy behind this building was that we create places for contemplation or conversations, as it is through these that intellectual exploration and learning occur,” Professor Kvan says.

The building is a case study that teaches students as they journey from stairway design to the creative uses for glass, timber and metal. 

“Throughout the building, the choices of materials, the details of connections, the way the sunlight is filtered and admitted or the glimpsed work under way will inspire students to look more closely and think about the place they are in,” Professor Kvan says.

The University has very carefully created spaces with different learning styles and practices in mind.

“Learning has changed from didactic to explorative. Today, we ask students to take more responsibility for their learning, thus we invite them to stay on campus and work in less structured spaces,” Professor Kvan says.

Many other spaces around the University exemplify this approach to learning and challenging the ‘chalk and talk’ educational models of yesteryear.

Overall, there has been a shift in higher education which has seen a general move away from large lecture halls, which in many ways constrict or constrain learning, and often reinforce an educational model based on lecturing.

Professor Gregor Kennedy, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Educational Innovation) sees developing vibrant and informal spaces on campus as a significant way of enhancing the daily educational experience of students.

“With our learning space design we’ve moved away from this ‘lecture theatre’ model, creating spaces with more flexibility, and opportunities for different types of exchanges and teaching and learning approaches,” Professor Kennedy explains.

One of the spaces that showcases this best is the ground floor of the Baillieu Library on the Parkville campus, which is light-filled and airy, with dedicated places for students to work at desks, but also nooks and armchairs for students to escape with reading material. Groupwork booths are complete with digital technology, screens and a prudent number of powerpoints.

“The students are voting with their feet,” Professor Kennedy says. “There’s a very high visiting rate and use by the students.” 

The University campuses have buildings that straddle different eras but must also gaze into the future to cater for students that haven’t even been born, learning styles that are in their infancy and educational devices that haven’t yet been invented.